The manner of my parents' dying is a study in contrasts. My dad died of an instant, massive heart attack, totally unexpected and unheralded. He was gone in the blink of an eye. Losing him that way had its blessings. Alzheimers claimed his older brother, and is now claiming his younger; it is highly likely that Daddy, had he lived longer, would also have had it. There was no lingering and suffering. Though the grief was sharp - heart- and mind-numbing- the worst of it was packed into those first few months. Losing him like that also had its own difficulties. I regretted that there was no chance to ask all the questions about his past that I had been only lately wondering about, such as his experiences flying medevac flights in the Philippines during WWII. The hardest thing for me to deal with was that we didn't get to say goodbye. We didn't know the "lasts" were, in fact, the lasts. We didn't know we had spent our last Christmas, last Thanksgiving, last visits. There were no special last memories made.
With my mother dying as she is, we WILL have to watch her suffer. It won't be for a period of years, as we went through with my dh's parents, but it will be more than long enough! (Google "dying from lung cancer" and you can find descriptions of what she faces.) By the time she dies, we will long to see her free from the ravages of this disease. Our grief has already begun, coming in fits and starts, and I expect we will have done most of our grieving by the time she is finally released.
But it is a blessing is that we have the chance to ask the questions. We have the opportunity to treasure the "lasts" that we are given. We have opportunities to make special memories that will last us all our lives, to savor moments so that we may fix them in our minds.
So let me tell you of our Christmas to Remember.
From the Friday before Christmas till the morning of New Year's Day, I had from at least 4 to as many as 15 extra people here every day. All five of our children were here, two with a spouse and 2 granddaughters each. (The first Christmas with all the adult kids for about 3 years, and all 5 together only twice for a few hours in the intervening years.) Also here were my oldest brother, wife, and 2 grown sons, who I only see every few years. The day after Christmas, our oldest son and his family left to visit HER folks, and my youngest older brother, wife, daughter, and their foster baby took their places at the table. (All of which is why I'm not writing about any of this until now!) My kids would have been here, anyway, but my brothers came as a special visit to see Mama.
Mama is no longer able to attend church services. (She had no idea that the Sunday before Thanksgiving would be her last!) So we decided to do a candlelight Christmas Eve service at her house, early enough in the evening for those with little ones to participate. In the dark and hush, the 4 and 2 yo great-granddaughters played well with the Granma's house toys that the two girls who live here know well. The 7 mo spent the first half-hour or so sitting quietly in Granma's lap, exceptional for a wiggle worm like Fiona. After a prayer, we began our first carol. As we started on the second verse, I nearly broke down. All my life I have associated Mama and music. She loves to sing, and there are several hymns that always make me think of her because she used to sing them as she did housework. As we were singing that carol, I was suddenly struck by the fact that her voice was missing. The breathing required for singing is too much for her now. I realized I will never hear my mother's lovely voice lifted in song again.
By the end of the second verse, I had recovered and was able to sing again. Various ones of us chose carols to sing. When our kids were young at home, we sang carols - ALL the verses - throughout the Advent season, so although some were a bit rusty, we made it through all of them. In between songs, we read the story from Luke. I had Bethy read Granma's favorite reading, a piece written as from Mary to the apostle John, talking about not just Jesus' birth, but His whole life, through His death and resurrection. Several others shared special things they had been thinking about. Most touching of all was our son, Darien. (This is the one whose teen years we refer to as the Hell Years. Now nearing 25, we are closer than ever, and we have seen amazing growth in his relationship with the Lord.) He has been listening to one of his favorite punk Christian bands and their cover of the old, old hymn, "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing", and some lines in it had hit him in a profound way. He read them to us. "Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God. He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood. How His kindness yet pursues me! Mortal tongue can never tell. Clothed in flesh till death shall loose me, I cannot proclaim it well." He was crying as he read it, and afterwards spoke of the personal meaning of those lines, and his growing awareness that we will never be able to fully express the wonder of God's grace until we reach heaven. Of all my children, to hear THIS son speak so! What a blessing! The evening continued with song as we asked Mama for suggestions, and we finally ended with prayer. It was one of the most profound, most moving, most holy times I can ever remember with my family. What a memory to carry with us!!
During the week, each of my kids who live far away spent special one-on-one time with their Granma, and my brothers and their wives spent many hours over all the days of their visits sitting and talking with her. We got some great pictures. My brother's family, Cherry and I also did a Sunday morning service and hymn-sing, another special time together. My mom's voice couldn't be raised, but she whispered those beloved words with radiant face.
Each of us had our times of tears, thinking of the Christmases to come where she will be celebrating with the One Whose birth the angels heralded rather than with us. For the out-of town visitors, it was oh, so hard to put a final end to their conversation and say goodbye, not knowing if they will have another visit - or if, by the time they visit, our mother will be on the threshold of heaven. We are all starkly aware of the impending separation. But what a gift to be able to celebrate just once more while she is still here! What a joy to experience just a small foretaste of the joy we will enjoy together for eternity!